I have been thinking about this question a lot lately as I try to understand some of the underpinnings and history of design thinking. This got me thinking about the “fundamentals”, those core constructs at the heart of this process.
So, my background is in biological sciences and I have getting back to my biology basics through a bit reading I’ve been doing on the neuroscience of pleasure and addictions (The book I finished is The Compass of Pleasure by David Linden…an excellent read by the way!). This book talks about neurological pathways, diving into the fine details of neurotransmitter release, dendrites, dopamine channels, and the stimulation of nerves leading to the emotional, mental and physical responses of the brain and body. This reminded me of the fundamental biochemical pathways and components that comprise the human body and are essential to our livelihood.
When I think about the fundamentals of design thinking, I think about a variety of ‘messy’ concepts that have come together, informed by a multiplicity of disciplines and ways of thinking, feeling, and doing. That said, it’s hard to pinpoint the underlying constructs of design thinking…rather I see diverse collections of design thinking concepts that have manifested themselves into the forms of design thinking that I see and read about. In this sense, it seems that there are essential building blocks of design thinking that are expressed in various permutations and combinations, depending on the designer and context in which it is being practiced.
I was inspired by the periodic table of the elements in thinking about this. The periodic table has always been a point of fascination and brilliance to me. The fact that science has identified essential elements that comprise all human life and all matter is pretty cool. There is a beautiful order to the elements that dictates their very composition, behaviours, and relationships. The elements themselves are comprised of subatomic particles (protons and neutrons for instance) and there are still a lot of unknowns and things to discover as we dig even further (quirks, quarks, etc.). Amazingly, when grouped into periods (rows), families (columns), and blocks there are patterns of similarity, synergy, and difference that emerge.
The above image is an attempt (a very crude and incomplete attempt that is) to highlight some major concepts that have come up in my design, design thinking, and health promotion learnings that I felt were elemental to “design thinking”. Please note that I intentionally tried to avoid the inclusion of design methods and wanted to include only major themes rather than list too many sub-categories of potential elements (e.g., senses like “touching”, “smelling”, etc. were not listed individually but assumed to fall under the umbrella term “sensing”).
These elements have been organized into families and periods (very loosely) — this was sort of my own challenge to see if I could come up with some clear connections between these concepts across the table’s horizontal and vertical axes. As I expected, this was really really difficult and I don’t think I’ve managed to do it. What I’ve come up with is a 1.0 version of this table and I welcome feedback, new ideas, and alternative language, words, concepts, and groupings. After all, this is the start of an experiment…like a sketch on the back of a napkin that can be either a really great idea or a complete flop. Also, you’ll also notice gaps in the table where some concepts may have been missed or unaccounted for. Certainly this table is not as orderly (or ‘natural’) as Mendeleev’s!
Perhaps the use of a table is a bit too mechanistic, scientific, or generally just not amenable to design thinking? I will say that I think there is value in thinking about the design thinking elements that are core to all design thinking practice (e.g., I have proposed these elements in red) and how these can be blended together with various combinations of other elements to create a unique design thinking space for particular contexts, problems, and people. I also appreciate that these concepts/words can be adapted to fit the language and definitions of any designer and that they are visible in one space so they are made more explicit and clear. Moreover, the combinations of elements can potentially be weaved into various theories (e.g., of learning, education, behaviour change, and design) so that we can make better sense of all this”design thinking” stuff.
UPDATE: My follow up post, Elements of Design Thinking “trading cards”, has a series of cards with the elements on them for you to print off and cut out if you’re interested in playing around with these concepts even further! Thanks.
For InDesign-ers: I am having trouble applying colours to shapes/lines outside of the automatic swatches offered in the main palet (notice that I used the standard colours available in the palet for the image above). Is there a more extensive colour selection I can choose from? This has been an ongoing problem for me! Oy.